An Actor’s Revenge aka Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (Kon Ichikawa, 1963)
Three men, Sansai Dobe (Ganjirō Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburō Date) and Hiromiya (Eijirō Yanagi) are responsible for the deaths of seven-year-old Yukitarō’s mother and father. Yukitarō is adopted and brought up by Kikunojō Nakamura (Chūsha Ichikawa), the actor-manager of an Osaka kabuki troupe. The adult Yukitarō (Kazuo Hasegawa) becomes an onnagata, a male actor who plays female roles. He takes the stage name Yukinojō. Like many of the great onnagata, particularly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he wears women’s clothes and uses the language and mannerisms of a woman offstage as well as on. Many years later, the troupe pays a visit to Edo, where the three men responsible for his parents’ deaths now live.
Being a diehard fan of Akira Kurosawa and a Yasujiro Ozu enthusiast, this first encounter with a Kon Ichikawa film took me some time to get acquainted with his mise en scène and his direct vision. Clearly inspired by his story of traditional Japan theater and its techniques, lots of yelled dialogues, a very minimalistic staging and few elements are in his frames even if he has many superb panoramic. He puts pretty much all of his light and attention on his characters boldly highlighting the emotions and the acting. This is a very flamboyant looking film filled with vibrant colors and lots of superb costumes.
With Japan cinema this is sometimes the acting that could be on the right tone and sometimes it is way too much. So, even for a Japanese film, An Actor’s Revenge is overacted. Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film might be an amazing milestone and he portrays two characters, very different characters, but his presence gets annoying just like the other actors. Once you get used to it and you lower a bit the volume there’s a lot to appreciate.
The cinematography is outstanding and Ichikawa’s mise en scène is very personal even if a little too much theatrical to my tastes. The story develops just like a play would and we are never quite sure if it’s a play or the real story since Yukitaro keeps his female clothes and manners. It brings a very different vision of Japan Cinema when compared to his peers Kurosawa, Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi.
When regarded as a whole, An Actor’s Revenge works well as an introspection into the Japan culture and its theater. The jazzy saxophone brings a musical angle that was not expected and maybe a depth in the way that few traditional Japanese music is used in the film. Ichikawa sure brings something different at the table and his voice will be interesting to discover much deeper.